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Gettysburg Gospel

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has achieved a status as American Scripture equaled only by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address. In merely 271 words, the wartime president fused his epoch’s most powerful and disruptive tendencies—nationalism, democratism, and German idealism—into a civil religion indebted to the language of Christianity but devoid of its content.

That the Gettysburg Address achieves so much in so little space has a lot to do with what Lincoln didn’t say on that November day in 1863. An odd vacancy runs through the speech. Pronouns without antecedents carried Lincoln’s words away from the things he was supposedly talking about. The speech was abstracted from the place where he stood and the suffering he memorialized. Lincoln mentioned “a great battle-field” but not the town and surrounding farms of Gettysburg. He invoked the “fathers” but left them unnamed. He extolled the “proposition that all men are created equal” but left the Declaration of Independence implied.

He honored “brave men” but not a single commanding officer or soldier by name. He spoke of a “nation” five times but avoided anything as definite as geographic America, the United States, the republic, the Constitution, the North, the South, or even the Union. The Union was the very thing he had been insisting since 1861 that he fought to preserve. Perhaps most striking of all, even though this speech followed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by nearly a year, he never mentioned slavery. Instead, we have “freedom.”

Lincoln omits these tangible details of place and moment with such skill that readers do not notice the empty spaces. For anyone who does not already know something specific about the Civil War, the speech creates no picture in the mind. It could be adapted to almost any battlefield in any war for “freedom” in the 19th century or thereafter. Perhaps the speech’s vacancies account for its longevity and proven usefulness beyond 1863—even beyond America’s borders. Lincoln’s speech can be interpreted as a highly compressed Periclean funeral oration, as Garry Wills showed definitively in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg. But unlike Pericles’ performance, this speech names no Athens, no Sparta, no actual time, place, people, or circumstances at all.

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Into this empty vessel Lincoln poured the 19th-century’s potent ideologies of nationalism, democratism, and romantic idealism. Together, these movements have become inseparable from the modern American self-understanding. They have become part of our civil religion and what we likewise ought to call our “civil history” and “civil philosophy”—that is, religion, history, and philosophy pursued not for their own sake, not for the truth, but deployed as instruments of government to tell useful stories about a people and their identity and mission. Polybius praised Rome’s forefathers for having invented religion for just this public purpose. Religion, history, and philosophy can all be domesticated to make them tools for the regime.

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

Bellah, a defender of American civil religion who wanted to globalize it in the post-Kennedy years, claimed that Lincoln and the Civil War gave America a “New Testament” for its civic faith: “The Gettysburg symbolism (‘…those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live’) is Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church.”

To this civil religion, Lincoln added his distinctive civil history and civil philosophy. Subtracting the “four score” years from 1863 takes us back to 1776. America was “brought forth” in 1776—not in 1787 or 1788, when the Constitution was ratified by state conventions. In his First Inaugural in 1861, the Republican president had insisted that the Union was older than the states: it had formed at least as early as 1774 and had organically “matured” through the war years. But now at Gettysburg, the Union vanished and the claim appeared that a “new nation” was born in 1776.

Lincoln’s exclusive use of “nation” in this speech for the thing that was founded, tested, and awaited rebirth deserves careful notice. In the domestic and international context of the 1860s, this was a powerful word. In the first place, it answered the most contested political question from 1787 to 1861—and not just between the North and the South but between anyone who argued over whether a citizen’s allegiance belonged first to his state or to the Union. “Nation” swept aside all other options. Secondly, the mid-19th century was the age of Europe’s wars of national unification. To be a “nation” in 1863 meant something quite different from what it had before the French Revolution. It now signified an organic “people,” unified at the core, and raised up by a Providential history to fulfill a unique mission.

Key to understanding that mission is the idealism embedded in Lincoln’s civil philosophy. That philosophy relied on what Lincoln famously called a “proposition,” a word exposing Lincoln’s highly abstract and ahistorical way of talking about America. He took the Declaration’s affirmation that “all men are created equal,” turned it into a proposition, dedicated the nation to it, and then pulled all of American history through and from that proposition.

Lincoln’s propositional apriorism mirrors the German idealism imported into the United States in the first half of the 19th century (at times secondhand via France and England). We know from Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln admired Boston’s radical Unitarian and Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker. Parker, who died in 1860, had been one of the principal conduits of avant-garde German philosophy and theology into New England. We also know from Herndon that in 1858 he brought Lincoln a copy of Parker’s 1850 sermon “The Effect of Slavery on the American People.” Herndon recalled that Lincoln “liked especially the following expression, which he marked with a pencil, and which he in substance afterwards used in his Gettysburg address: ‘Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.’”

Just above these words, which Herndon paraphrased, Parker referred to the “American idea.” Parker warned of “two principles” struggling for “mastery” in the United States. Only one of them was truly the “American idea.” “I so name it,” he said,

because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.

Read alongside the Gettysburg Address, Parker’s contribution to the speech is unmistakable. At points the wording is nearly identical. This is not to say that Lincoln plagiarized from Parker. The point is to draw attention to how much Lincoln compressed into his brief speech. His civil philosophy, indebted to German Idealists like Parker, distilled something as complex, diverse, untidy, and contested as the formation of the American republic into one proposition, and then from that fragment of a fragment of the past extrapolated both the essence of America in 1863 and its purpose in the future. No part of any sentence of any document, even if that document is the Declaration of Independence, can carry this load. Web issue image [1]

Embedded in the Gettysburg Address, the proposition defined the making of America and why it fought a costly war. We cannot know how Lincoln would have wielded the proposition in pursuit of America’s postwar domestic and foreign policy; his death in 1865 left that question open, as Republicans and even Democrats used the martyred president and his words to endorse everything from limited government to consolidated power, from anti-imperialism to overseas expansion. Under all this confusion, however, Lincoln’s propositional nation helped move America from the old exceptionalism to the new. He helped America become less like itself and more like the emerging European nation-states of mid-century, each pursuing its God-given benevolent mission.

A propositional nation like Lincoln’s is “teleocratic,” in philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s use of the word, as distinct from “nomocratic.” That is, it governs itself by the never-ending pursuit of an abstract “idea” rather than by a regime of law that allows individuals and local communities to live ordinary lives and to find their highest calling in causes other than the nation-state. Lincoln left all Americans, North and South, with a purpose-driven nation.

One hundred and fifty years ago, President Lincoln, in the midst of a long and brutal war, deployed a powerful civil religion, civil history, and civil philosophy to superimpose one reading of American history onto any competitors. Ever since, generations of Americans have come to believe that we have always been a democratic nation animated by an Idea. The alternatives have been excluded from the national creed as heresy. The way most Americans today interpret the Declaration of Independence, the purposes of the War for Independence, the principles that underlie America’s Constitution, the causes and consequences of the Civil War, and the calling of the propositional nation to the rest of the world comes largely from the Gettysburg Address. To the degree we allow Lincoln’s words to mediate how we read American history, they will continue to settle, preemptively, the most contested questions about America’s origin, purpose, and destiny.

Richard Gamble is the author of In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth.

44 Comments (Open | Close)

44 Comments To "Gettysburg Gospel"

#1 Comment By David Naas On November 14, 2013 @ 10:47 am

Lincoln’s phrasings were influenced by what he read.
Lincoln was probably more Deist than anything else.
Lincoln’s 278 words were taken up and used by several generations of Americans to provide a shorthand statement of what they wanted to believe.
Had those words not fallen on fertile ground, they would never have sprung up, and I, like many other schoolchildren would not have been required to memorize them.
We Americans are very good at making workable myths to sustain what we want to do — there IS a sense in which society as a whole has a common pattern of thought. “Manifest Destiny” was probably one of those collective thoughts for a long time.
While it is true that Lincoln was a canny politician, in your presentation of him, he comes across as a Machiavellian distorter of all the Americans were before the War of Northern Aggression.
I am aware of a revisionist strain on the Right which seeks to deconstruct the Legend of Lincoln, making the first Republican President into a RINO.
I am sure this was not your intent.
But it may contribute to that effort.

#2 Comment By Johann On November 14, 2013 @ 11:07 am

Lincoln has always been considered a great American icon, but today he seems to be elevated to a disturbing near god level. And those who criticize him are accused of supporting the southern confederacy. Why is there such a renewed interest in Lincoln?

#3 Comment By David Naas On November 14, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

Johann — In reading Bruce Caton’s Civil War Trilogy, the language of the Southern Fire-eaters and Northern Abolitionists is uncomfortably too close to the rhetoric I see in politics today — apocalyptic nonsense that pushed this nation to catastrophe.
The renewed interest in Lincoln may be due to the hope we can find another one like him if and when the Tea Party tries to secede.

#4 Comment By Hooly On November 14, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

I have to say, this is an interesting take. And if I were a Christian, somewhat disturbing. Because Christianity claims Jesus to be the Messiah, Son of God, last prophet, etc, etc. as well as the ‘perfection’ and ‘replacement’ of Judaism and Graeco-Roman religion, it can not contemplate that it can itself be replaced and perfected in time. We all know this is not true, examples: the rise of Islam and the claims of its Prophet and followers to be the perfection and replacement of Christianity, the Protestant Reformation and the ‘reform’ of Catholicism. Now we have this so-called ‘Civil Religion’ that appropriates Christian symbolism as Christianity once appropriated Jewish symbolism and, dare I say it?, twists it for its own ends? I must say this is an interesting process from a sociological point of view, once again this is happening, … where once Christianity supplanted Judaism and Paganism, now Christianity itself is being slowly supplanted.

#5 Comment By Proud Scalawag On November 14, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

RE: “A propositional nation like Lincoln’s is “teleocratic,” in philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s use of the word, as distinct from “nomocratic.” That is, it governs itself by the never-ending pursuit of an abstract “idea” rather than by a regime of law that allows individuals and local communities to live ordinary lives and to find their highest calling in causes other than the nation-state. Lincoln left all Americans, North and South, with a purpose-driven nation.”

(1) False distinction. No reason we can’t be both.
(2) Gross exaggeration of the scope of the teleocratic pursuit. Doubt if many of us, other than a few teacher’s pets and pundits, actually take it seriously. Even the neocons use teleocracy as an excuse and a smokescreen. Real politics is NOT an exercise in idealism of any kind.
(3) You can deconstruct Lincoln’s style all you you want, but thoroughness requires a consideration of the truth of his claim. Would not republican government in America have been truly endangered had the slavocracy been able to expand West and South? Lincoln said so; the man had a point.

#6 Comment By Johann On November 14, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

David Naas,

Could be.

#7 Comment By Ed On November 14, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

19th century America was awash with democratic, nationalist, and romantic enthusiasm. Read Walt Whitman, Orestes Brownson, John O’Sullivan. Such sentiments waxed and waned in different regions, largely in relation to discord over slavery expansion, but none of that was something that Lincoln took out of his stovepipe hat on his own. Nor was it something that many of Lincoln’s bitterest opponents wouldn’t at one time or another have given credence to.

He helped America become less like itself and more like the emerging European nation-states of mid-century, each pursuing its God-given benevolent mission.

Are you entirely serious? Hadn’t we already fought two expansionist wars with Britain and Mexico? Hadn’t we been expanding as fast as we could to the Pacific in pursuit of our “Manifest Destiny” for some time? Hadn’t we long since cast our benevolent protective cloak over the whole hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine? What did Europe have to teach us or show us with respect to an expansionist mission well before Lincoln became president?

Of course, European monarchies had been or had empires when we were still colonies ourselves, or only a fledgling republic. In that sense, when we involved ourselves in great power politics, we did become more like Britain or France or Germany, but one could just as easily say that “emerging nation-states” like Germany, Italy, or (I suppose) France were imitating us — national sentiment, territorial expansionism, popular government responsive to popular passions — as much as we could be said to be going down their path.

The Civil War did accelerate processes and trends that were already at work, but those processes and trends go back to the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian transformations of the country. American civil religion was developing even before that. To a certain extent we were a “creedal” nation before Abraham Lincoln had even been born, however much some resisted the trend.

While there’s much to commend in your essay, the idea that Lincoln “derailed” or “hijacked” American politics and replaced the good “Old Republic” with the new evil empire is not really something we need to encourage. That notion did much to enliven political thinking in recent years but so many people now hold to it as a dogma that it’s become one of those idols or myths that hinder our understanding.

#8 Comment By William Broughton On November 14, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

Might I recommend the reading of Gabor Boritt’s The Gettysburg Gospel as a masterful setting of the speech in its context, which is necessary for its interpretation. What seems to us an abstraction, for instance, omitting the naming of any individual officers or soldiers when he declared, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here,” was no abstraction at all to a crowd and a nation filled with wounded soldiers. Boritt writes “As he spoke, a captain in the crowd with an empty sleeve buried his face in his good arm, shaking and sobbing aloud. Then he raised his eyes high and exclaimed in a low, solemn voice: ‘God Almighty bless Abraham Lincoln!’ The reporter, noting the faces around the soldier, thought that people responded silently with ‘Amen.’ And all the while the crown applauded Lincoln again.” Lincoln’s words embraced people and pointed them to a meaning and significance for their suffering. His speech only seems an “empty vessel” to those who have not sought out its meaning to its original hearers.

#9 Comment By peterike On November 14, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

Mmmmm, yeah. He slaughtered and terrorized a whole bunch of people too.

#10 Comment By Frank Golubski On November 14, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

“You can deconstruct Lincoln’s style all you you want, but thoroughness requires a consideration of the truth of his claim.”

I think Mencken dealt *that* one a death blow:

“The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly. It is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection — the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous.

“But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people,” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”

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#11 Comment By J.D. On November 14, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

It is misleading to reduce Lincoln’s principles to “nationalism.” He did not value the nation as a nation, as a thing worth preserving in and of itself; he valued the republic because he believed it stood for liberty. Here is what he had to say about nationalism in 1855:

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

And here is what he felt true patriotism was, from his eulogy to Henry Clay:

“He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.”

#12 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 14, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

I can’t resist. To twist the words of Nietzsche: “The state appropriated religion to suit it’s own purposes. Ever the gentleman, religion is returning the favor.”

#13 Comment By Myron Hudson On November 14, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

Johann: The upsurge in interest of Lincoln might also reflect a this dynamic:

Nixon’s Southern Strategy irrevocably changed the demographics of the GOP, as the counterculture changed the demographics of the Democratic party, and Lincoln was never as revered in the south as he was in the north.

My family is from the south. To my father the civil war was the war of northern aggression. Even as a kid, I made my confederate plastic soldiers win, which raised a few eyebrows in Pennsylvania where I was actually raised. My point is that it is still a sore point for many.

Lincoln also presided over tremendous collaboration between industry and the State with regard to the railroads. I heartily recommend “Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869” by Stephen E. Ambrose. Fascinating.

Between that and the war, Lincoln is a President who increased the power of the office and the State. The GOP has long touted themselves as the Party of Lincoln, mostly in an attempt to attract back votes, but it is clear that they might not want to be that any more. I think that a lot of what we read these days is a move towards disassociation. It will be necessary first to discredit him – or set things straight regarding him- depending on your point of view.

At the same time, the Dems who used to represent the south until Nixon and Reagan, and who now have a different and more northern and urban demographic, seem to be adopting him as their own.

Aside from that, David Nass raises a good point about today’s nonsensical and apocalyptic rhetoric mirroring that of the earlier time. However I don’t think were going to get a unifier anytime soon because, frankly, we don’t want one, and our true lords and masters would rather have us at each others’ throats. As Pogo Possum said, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

#14 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On November 15, 2013 @ 12:10 am

Frank, thanks for the Mencken reference! My son recently had to memorize the Gettyburg address for history class and I think he’ll be interested to see another perspective on it.

#15 Comment By Liam On November 15, 2013 @ 9:01 am

Mencken’s erstwhile death blow is only one if you also accept southern claims on their face, which is not terribly credible. There is, for example, the untidy little matter that enslaved people had no vote, and the South agitated for a Mexican War that annexed free land (slavery having been abolished in Mexico during its war for independence) that was not American. Et cet.

#16 Comment By Mike in KC, MO On November 15, 2013 @ 9:28 am

I don’t remember who said it: “The Lincoln Memorial is the most American of all memorials: A Railroad lobbyist in an easy chair.”

#17 Comment By Steve M On November 15, 2013 @ 11:25 am

To LaurelhurstLiberal: Here’s a different perspective on the Mencken quote supplied by Frank.

Abraham Lincoln was the duly, and fairly, elected president of the United States in 1860. Voter fraud was not alleged to be an issue and it was no fault of his, or the Republicans, that the Democratic party splintered so badly that they allowed a candidate with less than 50% of the popular vote to win the electoral college. But, hey, that’s the rules our republic had been governed by and best of luck to our Southern brothers and sisters in 1864. Right? But, as we all know, that’s not what happened. Even before Lincoln was inaugurated, and could pass any single law, Southern states started to secede. The duly elected “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” was now in jeopardy. So, I would ask you, who are the real defenders of our self determination as a nation? The people who would respect the outcome of the electoral process and fight and die for it’s preservation or those who lost at the ballot and would make an unsuccessful appeal to the bullet instead? And it is beyond rich to hear Mencken, as quoted by Frank, extol the Confederates as those “…who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.” They seceded, then fought, for the unrestricted right to govern the lives of other human beings. To deny this regards the South’s motivation to secede is to deny the obvious. To hold the Confederates up as exemplars of “live and let live” folk is to do violence to both language and rational thought.

#18 Comment By Dennis Brislen On November 15, 2013 @ 11:56 am

One need not “accept southern claims on their face” to understand Mencken.

To the contrary, clearly Mencken has correctly pointed out that Lincoln makes a beautifully poetic leap into illogic which transforms the “founding” into a fictional, albeit, quasi-religious event.

As has been pointed out in the comments above, a good portion (unfortunately) of our present population still labors under an updated version of Manifest Destiny to be visited upon the entire globe.

#19 Comment By Mike in KC, MO On November 15, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

“They seceded, then fought, for the unrestricted right to govern the lives of other human beings.”
– Ah yes. The dirt poor enlistee in the Confederate Army fought and shed his blood to make sure that the small slaveholding class (who were resented by most everybody else in the South) could keep their slaves.

Yeah… At which public school did you serve your time?

#20 Comment By Mike in KC, MO On November 15, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Steve M also thinks that Al Qaeda attacked us because they hate us for our freedoms too.

#21 Comment By Argosy Jones On November 15, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

“- Ah yes. The dirt poor enlistee in the Confederate Army fought and shed his blood to make sure that the small slaveholding class (who were resented by most everybody else in the South) could keep their slaves.

It’s not the enlistees in the army who decide to go to war, nor for which purposes, but the economic and political elites. If you read the plain English of the declarations of causes written by several of the states’ leaders, you will see there is no doubt that the war was begun and prosecuted by the Southern elite for the purpose of defending and extending the institution of negro slavery.

Georgia- “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”-2nd sentence of declaration.

Mississippi- “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery”-2nd sentence of declaration.

South Carolina-“A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. … the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

Texas-“She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

The feelings of the enlistees are hardly relevant.

#22 Comment By Ed On November 15, 2013 @ 5:05 pm

A propositional nation like Lincoln’s is “teleocratic,” in philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s use of the word, as distinct from “nomocratic.” That is, it governs itself by the never-ending pursuit of an abstract “idea” rather than by a regime of law that allows individuals and local communities to live ordinary lives and to find their highest calling in causes other than the nation-state. Lincoln left all Americans, North and South, with a purpose-driven nation.

Is that really true? Or is it just rhetorical excess? I see very many people living “ordinary lives” and very few finding their highest calling in the cause of the nation-state.

Writing like this comes across as an example of what happens when one tries to apply rhetoric and ideas developed during the highly ideological mid-20th century years of world war and cold war to present day domestic politics, which are nowhere near as apocalyptic. You find a lot of writing in that spirit nowadays.

I don’t know if Oakeshott was a “wet” or a “dry” in Tory politics, but in Britain’s own domestic politics he was arguing against dogmatic socialists — the driest of dries — and it’s strange to see him evoked on behalf of a rigid, rationalistic, and systematized view of what the state should and shouldn’t be.

#23 Comment By Steve M On November 15, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

To Mike in KC, MO:

Well Mike, the”dirt poor enlistee” didn’t resent them (the small slaveholding class, as you call them) enough not to be led in to secession and war by them. Though relatively small in number, the slave holding class had economic and political clout that dwarfed that of poor Southern whites, not to mention the large enslaved African population. Read the declaration of causes for secession, which was mostly written by the slaveholding leadership class, and certainly not poor Southern whites. It’s all about the maintenance (constitutional according to Lincoln) and enlargement (unconstitutional according to Lincoln) of African slavery. Lastly, do you deny the truth that small powerful elites, from time immemorial to this day, have controlled far larger groups to do their bidding? Unfortunately, when there was a choice to be made, the poor Southern whites threw in with the slaveholding class and ended up on the wrong side of history.

#24 Comment By J.D. On November 15, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

Mencken’s lack of interest in the slaves — who presumably also wanted to govern themselves — is utterly characteristic of his work. He was a lifelong elitist who made no bones about his contempt for the majority of other people, a stance that his wonderful writing fooled his readers into thinking was a sign of his superiority (and theirs). But as his diaries — with their rampant, casual expressions of anti-black bigotry, anti-Semitism, and indifference to Hitler — reveal, misanthropy is a slippery slope.

#25 Comment By Jim Evans On November 16, 2013 @ 3:20 am

@ Mike in KC, MO: Argosy Jones has it right.

While Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, the South attempted to succeed to preserve SLAVERY.

That is the BIG PROBLEM for neo-confederates.

The succession ordinances all speak of the injury to the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery, other reasons specified are ‘in additions to’ the grievous injustice done to the distinctive characteristic of the southern states.

That the ‘Slave Power’ could cause so much death & destruction of non-slave holders is testament to the willingness of an elite to use and then take down everybody else to preserve their own power.

The Gettysburg Address was the distilled essence of the purposes for which those who fought & died on the battlefield gave their lives. The Union was more than a collection of states, it was the continuation of freedom within this nation.

And Lincoln was successful: We do remember the sacrifice of those soldiers, to this very day, by his words, we do remember.

#26 Comment By Dennis Brislen On November 16, 2013 @ 9:40 am

Mencken indeed was a man of his times. Not so much different from many of his region and period.

He should be examined (as should all historical figures) within the context of his time. There are few among us who haven’t said, or in some manner expressed things which could be cherry picked into character assassination.

None of which makes Mencken’s description of the Gettysburg Address incorrect.

The reality is; in 1861 slavery was constitutionally legal, Lincoln had vowed to do nothing to end it, no more than 5% or less of the northern population were dedicated abolitionalists, a much greater percentage were racist by “todays” standards and the issue of war revolved around the more nebulous question of whether or not secession was legal. The south believed it was, as did many in the north.

#27 Comment By Steve M On November 16, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

To Dennis Bristen:

When you write, “None of which makes Mencken’s description of the Gettysburg Address incorrect.”, are readers to infer that you would agree with the assertion by Mencken that, as opposed to Union soldiers, “…it was the Confederates that fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”? If so, on what grounds would you make this assertion? Southern states began to secede even before Lincoln was inaugurated as President. Therefore, it is not possible that any of the rights that the South enjoyed under the Buchanan administration had been abridged by the incoming President. Perhaps the South believed they had the right to always have a President who was personally predisposed to slavery. Lincoln was not that man but he also knew, lawyer that he was, that slavery was the law of the land and that he had no right to interfere with it, by law, where it already existed. The right of people to govern themselves most assuredly includes the compact that all parties abide by the result of free and fair elections, that all parties participated in under agreed upon rules . The South could’ve regrouped and fought on in the 1862 and 1864 elections. They did not do that. And please do not confuse the motives of the South and the North, which were different. The South seceded and fought, not for the right of self determination, but to invalidate the results of a fair national election and to expand the institution of African slavery.

#28 Comment By Charles Luke On November 17, 2013 @ 1:50 am

Great article. Thank you.

Lincoln’s speech was important because it provided the verbiage, the sound bites for a pattern that the USA was to follow again and again. Once they really learned how to drive an economy through massive war and how to play it publicly as a grand crusade for human freedom, they were off and running with a scam that has increased in ferocity and frequency ever since. Methodically they soon went after every weaker nation within reach, destroying the tribes of the west, occupying major chunks of Mexico, and then on to the Philippines. They have been liberating people ever since. Most recently they have been liberating women and homosexuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, etc, etc, etc, while protecting Israel from Iran, the nation that liberated ancient Israel from the Babylonians and paid for the rebuilding of the temple.

Early on in their history the Americans decided that the entire Western religious tradition was deeply flawed. Moses was way off base bringing the Ten Commandments to the people, giving them laws when he should have led them in the choosing of their own laws. “OK, now everybody who thinks that sex with siblings is alright, raise your hand. Next we will vote on usury.” Once they decided that the people alone can decide on what is right and wrong without reference to the wisdom of the ages, once they give in to neo-Viking barbarian traditions of democracy overlaid with and half-baked Platonic baloney and cast aside as tyranny the wisdom of ancient civilization, they were in a brave new world. From then on the primary function of what little is left of their religious tradition must be as a source of jargon to cannibalize when preparing propaganda. Lincoln was a particularly cleaver partitioner of this populist rhetoric, and his policies set the stage for imperial presidency and the police state in which the Americans now find themselves.

#29 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 17, 2013 @ 10:32 am

Ever since, generations of Americans have come to believe that we have always been a democratic nation animated by an Idea.

Maybe, but the truth is not far from that. We were founded as a nation groping, rather imperfectly, toward on Idea, a darn good one, and in our better decades, we actually made some progress.

Andrew Jackson answered the question about what loyalty comes first, when he observed “the United States is a government, not a League,” and threatened to hang John C. Calhoun from the highest tree in South Carolina. (My great-great-grandfather, who served in the 11th Tennessee Cavalry, United States Army, was a Jacksonian Democrat, and therefore a Unionist. True, our Cherokee ancestors may have had a different view of President Jackson.)

Mencken was telling a cynical lie when he said the Confederates fought for the right of the people to govern themselves. If put to a popular vote, secession would have failed in Mississippi. Secession was engineered by a wealthy elite, who couldn’t field sufficient armies to even put up a good fight for more than a year without conscription, without imposing confiscatory taxes on the yeomanry of the southern states, leaving conscripted soldiers’ families destitute, and all the while keeping a fair number of the wealthiest at home under the “Twenty Negroes” law.

That’s why a large number of the dirt poor CONSCRIPTS in the confederate army deserted in droves, and if attempts were made to round them up, retreated into the swamps and backwoods under designations such as the Union Scouts, to resist. This, of course, left those IN the army as those most committed to the cause, and most angry at the deserters, but they were far from representative of the entirety of southern opinion and loyalties.

Uh, J.D. … Lincoln was indifferent to HITLER? I imagine every one of his 19th century contemporaries was also…

The Civil War did not revolve around the question of whether slavery was legal. It was instigated to keep the territories open to slavery and new slave states, which is all the Republican platform proposed to restrict. By gambling all on rebellion, the slave states made it possible and necessary to abolish slavery entirely, and it then BECAME illegal by constitutional amendment.

Of course most in the north were not abolitionists. Seldom have any large number of human beings thought to risk their lives for someone else’s freedom. Lincoln worked masterfully during the course of the war to introduce the unassailable fact that the enslaved population was an asset to the South, that it made sense to take that asset away, and that black soldiers in uniform would bring the war to an end that much sooner, with that many fewer white soldiers killed in action. But Negroes, like anyone, fight for motives. If we will do nothing for them, why should they do anything for us? And a promise having been made, even freedom, the promise must be kept.

After the original 13 states, every state entered the union by Act of Congress, except for Maine and Vermont they were formed from national territory, their borders in no way reflected defensive national boundaries, they reflected interdependence, and the original point of the Louisiana Purchase was to secure the outlet of the Mississippi for the commerce of the entire river basin.

#30 Comment By Steve M On November 17, 2013 @ 5:42 pm

Very nice post from Siarlys Jenkins in which “Lincoln’s Letter to Conkling” is sampled. I strongly recommend this letter, as well as “Lincoln’s Letter to Hodges”, to the readership of the American Conservative. In these letters one can discern Lincoln’s personal feelings regards slavery, his thoughts on what the oath of office to uphold the Constitution allowed and, importantly, did not allow him to do regards slavery, and how his belief in what was permissible, regards the institution of slavery, evolved given the exigencies of war. Lastly, Charles Luke seems to imply that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address served as some sort of religious/philosophical underpinning for the Pax Americana we have today. He proffers the Mexican-American war, among others, to buttress this contention. For the record it should be noted that one term Whig Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, opposed that very popular war initiated during the Polk administration. His opposition was not very popular back home in Illinois and I believe cost the Whigs that Congressional seat in the next election.

#31 Comment By Eoin O’Heada On November 17, 2013 @ 11:04 pm

Lincoln had a collection of phrases and devices that can frequently be traced back to the crude rural court rooms of his law practice’s earliest days. He knew the power of words.

#32 Comment By Jack Spratt On November 18, 2013 @ 1:02 am

Secession over slavery failed in Virginia on a plebiscite on the first go around, Jenkins. Secession in the face of invasion passed on a plebiscite the second time around.

#33 Comment By Steve M On November 18, 2013 @ 10:49 am

@ Jack Spratt:

Jack is technically correct regards Virginia, if by the “face of invasion” he means Lincoln’s call for troops after the bombardment and capture of Fort Sumter. Unionist forces in Virginia did prevail at the secession convention on the 1st go round, handily defeating a motion to secede on April 4, 1861. However, after the April 12 bombardment of the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, and Lincoln’s subsequent call for federal troops, the pro-seccesion faction would gain strength and the Virginia Convention would vote to secede on April 17. Prior to that vote, though, Virginia State Militia would seize the Federal installations at Harpers Ferry and Norfolk. The ordinance of secession was put to a statewide referendum and ratified, in a landslide, on May 23, 1861. Shortly thereafter, Union troops captured Alexandria, Virginia. Obviously, for the 7 states that had preceded Virginia in to secession it was the threat to the institution of slavery that served as the main stimulus to secede. Ironically, numerous counties from western Virginia would, in short order, vote to secede from the “seceder”, forming the state of West Virginia.

#34 Comment By J.D. On November 18, 2013 @ 1:05 pm

Siarlys Jenkins: I said that Mencken was indifferent to Hitler, not that Lincoln was.

I agree with your take on secession.

#35 Comment By Dennis Brislen On November 18, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

Steve M:
I appreciate your intelligent responses on this thread.

History unfolds over time and single events often exacerbate what has been building.

Lincoln’s election was the culmination of many such events that over a thirty or more year period had been leading to secession.

The tariffs, regionalism, the demise of the doctrine of nullification, agrarian interests v industrial interests, the extension of slave states were all issues that set the stage for reaction to the 1860 elections.

If I understand your point, the south had no reason to secede since Lincoln had promised to do nothing to eliminate slavery where it existed.

We could agree on that but it is still irrelevant agreement because the south harbored the notion that every state had the contractual right of secession. We can argue ad infinitum as to whether the reasons they wanted to secede were right or wrong or stupid.

The fact is Lincoln had to come up with a new, quasi religious and some might say bizarre doctrine of the “founding” to justify his war to save the union.

It is to this that Mencken is responding.

#36 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 18, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

Thank you J.D., I read that out of context.

Secession over slavery failed in Virginia on a plebiscite on the first go around, Jenkins. Secession in the face of invasion passed on a plebiscite the second time around.

To amplify a little on Steve M’s highly relevant observation, if Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia had voted down secession (and they never got a plebiscite), Virginia would have had no occasion for the secessionists to get a second chance. This is a matter of “never waste a crisis.” If you can put a lie across in five states, then you can try again with a different war cry in a state that you couldn’t carry the first time, once war breaks out.

the south harbored the notion that every state had the contractual right of secession…

The fact is Lincoln had to come up with a new, quasi religious and some might say bizarre doctrine of the “founding” to justify his war to save the union.

It was not a new doctrine, nor quasi-religious, and it was not in the least bizarre. It was an explicit point raised by those who opposed ratification of the Constitution (who lost), it was enunciated by Andrew Jackson, and it was believed by millions, north and south, that they were citizens of the United States of America.

What is “bizarre” is the notion that the port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River could “secede” from the country that bought the land from France for the very purpose of insuring free access to the Gulf of Mexico for the farmers and manufacturers of the continental interior. What is “bizarre” is that straight lines drawn over hills and valleys without regard to topography were the boundaries of sovereign entities capable of secession.

#37 Comment By Mark S. Oller On November 18, 2013 @ 11:28 pm

After 148 years can we at least admit that the Army shot the wrong man in Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn on April 26, 1865? I can not say that Booth committed suicide in Enid Oklahoma on January 13, 1903, but the dead man in Garrett’s barn looked nothing like Booth and his leg was not injured. [3]

#38 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 19, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

After 148 years can we at least admit that the Army shot the wrong man in Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn on April 26, 1865?

You mean because there’s a web page saying Nate Orlowek doesn’t think so? I hardly find that conslusive evidence that we can all agree on and “admit” to be fact.

#39 Comment By Dennis Brislen On November 19, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

@ Siarlys Jenkins:

Your traipse into the “bizarre” with me is duly noted. As is your disagreement with Mencken.

Your use of the plural United “States” is duly noted as well.

Do you disagree that “free and independent states” signed the Declaration and Constitution?

Do you disagree that “…governments rest on the consent of the governed and it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments when they become destructive to the ends for which they were created…”?

Do you disagree with the premise that “…any people anywhere being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better…”?

I have no particular need to get into another of these interminable debates over Lincoln and his theory of the “founding”. That it requires a quasi-religious civic conviction as the author of this piece poses, seems on the mark to me.

However in the interest of brevity and my own sanity, I cease and desist with this passage.

You get the last word if you wish.

#40 Comment By David Lindsay On November 19, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

How many copies were ever sold of that recording of Margaret Thatcher reading the Gettysburg Address? Does anyone on here own such a thing?

#41 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 20, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

Dennis, I will limit my “last word” to answering your direct questions. I will, in the spirit of your closing, leave along your elucidations of various ways in which your opinion continues, unsurprisingly, to differe from mine. To the less committed reader, I hope I have provided some basis for considering a different understanding.

Do you disagree that “free and independent states” signed the Declaration and Constitution?

In part, I agree, and in part, I disagree. Thirteen colonies, each with its own charter, government, and connection to the British Crown, agreed to rebel together. None could have succeeded alone. None could have long retained their independence alone. (At best, the more fortunately situated might have become pawns of greater powers, as the elective Polish monarchy did). Having thrown off British rule, none had either the moral right or the effective power to dictate to the others. Their common rebellion was carried out to make them, collectively, “free and independent states,” individually. So that is what they were.

Your question begs the more relevant question of constitutional government. Did those “free and independent states” enter into an irrevocable union, or a league, revocable at will? The document they ratified created, I believe, an irrevocable union. And, all other states entering into that union, had NEVER been “free and independent states.” Rather, they were formed from national territory, by legislation of a national legislature, and admitted to the union when the national legislature so decided.

Do you disagree that “…governments rest on the consent of the governed and it is the right of the people to alter or abolish governments when they become destructive to the ends for which they were created…”?

Sure… and on that basis, the government of ANY STATE may be altered or abolished by “the people.” Of course, when every political faction is ready to self-righteously wrap itself in the mantle of “the people,” its a bit difficult to judge the credentials of those who claim to speak for the people’s rightous outrage.

I might like to overthrow Scott Walker — but my neighbors in the next county love him. Some folks in Texas would have loved to overthrow Rick Perry — but by no means all.

But more to the point of THIS discussion, does the government of a STATE seceding from the union constitute “the people” choosing to “overthrow or abolish” their “form of government”??? I would say no. Secession was merely one elite rebelling against another elite, over the objections of a large portion, perhaps a majority in some states, of “the people.”

How much respect did the confederate government, or any state government, give to those who wished to “overthrow or abolish” the confederacy, or the secessionist governments of those states?

Do you disagree with the premise that “…any people anywhere being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better…”?

Of course. And that comes with all the caveats I offered in response to your first, and almost identical, question. But rising up and shaking off almost always involves a violent confrontation with existing, and until then duly constituted, authority. How does one distinguish a mad terrorist insurrection from a popular revolution? There are ways… how widespread the grievances, how well organized and respectful of civilian safety are the partisans… but its difficult.

Or, as a judge said some twenty years ago when a prosecuting attorney made a snide insinuation about some party wanting to overthrown the government, “Half the population at every election wants to overthrow the government. The question is what means they are prepared to use.”

The governor of Virgina complained that the west Virginians should abide by the majority vote (to secede — the second vote). Well, what about asking Virginia to abide by the plurality vote in the election for president? Is the government of a state more representative of the people than the federal government? Not hardly. Often, its much easier to buy.

#42 Comment By Wm. Ridenour On November 20, 2013 @ 3:24 pm

Mike from Mo. wrote:
While Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union, the South attempted to succeed to preserve SLAVERY.

That is the BIG PROBLEM for neo-confederates.

First of all, Mike, you seem to be missing some of your history. Lincoln stated categorically he had no intention of ending slavery and no power to do so in his first inaugural speech. Also, in that speech he vowed he was ready to sign the Corwin Amendment that guaranteed the perpetual existence of slavery. This was the “carrot” he offered the Southern Republics if they would return to the union. The Corwin amendment, offered by an Ohio congressman, had, through Lincoln’s encouragement, been authored and passed by both houses, and it sat on Lincoln’s desk up to the moment he issued the emancipation proclamation: the proclamation that freed no one whatsoever.
This passage of the Corwin amendment and Lincoln’s promised signing of it did absolutely nothing to change the Southern Republics’ resolve in seceding. There were obviously many other reasons you are either ignorant of or simply choose to ignore to rationalize the slaughter of 3/4 of a million Americans in a war of subjugation and consolidation by advocates of centralized rule.
Note, the Emancipation proclamation freed no one in the Confederacy, because Lincoln had no sovereignty there. He might as well have freed slaves in Moravia or Mongolia. Second, it did not free any slaves in territories in the south that were occupied by union troops. Therefore, Grant’s slaves, who were with him, remained slaves. And, it did not free any slaves in the states that remained in the union, such as Kentucky, Missouri, or Maryland. It did not stop northern ship builders in NY harbor from continuing to profit from their biggest cash cow, the building of slave ships. It did not free any slaves in Lincoln’s newly created state, West Virginia, where it’s admission into the union was contingent upon agreeing to end slavery there at some unspecified time in the future by a process of manumission.
Next, you overlook the fact that many people in the south hated slavery and wanted to see it end. We know now, in hindsight, that slavery would have soon ended in the south for the same reasons in ended in the north: lack of profitability. Advances in farm technology would soon have made it absurd to continue to house, feed and care for slaves and their families when machines could do the work of dozens and even hundreds of field workers.
Finally, you articulate the typical double standard, by saying the end of slavery had to be forced in the south, when, in the north, slavery was ended over more than a generation through manumission.
How is it the south is not afforded the same rights regarding ending slavery as the north?
Of course, there is much, much more, but this will have to suffice here.

#43 Comment By Steve M. On November 20, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

@ Wm. Ridenour

Well, Mr. Ridenour, you seem to be missing out on the fact that it was Jim Evans, and not “Mike from Mo.”, who wrote the lines that you find so objectionable. That aside, Lincoln famously said if slavery is not wrong then nothing is wrong. He also said, repeatedly and prior to the Corwin Amendment, that he had no right under the law to interfere with it where it already existed. Nonetheless, 7 deep South states seceded before he could be inaugurated. Why would you expect those people in the seceding states to believe him during the inaugural address when they didn’t before? He was saying the exact same thing. Lincoln thought that he DID have the right to stop the expansion of slavery and that this curtailment would put it on the road to extinction. The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in those states that were in rebellion against the national government,i.e., much of the Confederacy. African slaves learning of this promise fled to Union lines, depriving the South of much needed manpower and providing the North countless individuals who had a rather unique motivation to see the South defeated. Lastly, you say many in the South hated slavery. Well, they weren’t powerful enough to prevent a bloody war to be waged for its preservation.

#44 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 20, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

What motivated slave owners to engineer secession is that closing the TERRITORIES to slavery and new slave states closed the market for sale of slaves, and as Jefferson Davis candidly stated in his first address to the confederate congress, that would destroy millions of dollars of investment property.

It wasn’t the labor of the slaves that they were worried about. Like the stock market, or a real estate bubble, the value of the property is the price a willing buyer will pay for it. Close off fresh demand, price drops, and money invested in slaves vanishes forever. That’s what they were willing to go to war for.

While the new agricultural business class that arose during and after Reconstruction worked hard to keep a cheap work force down on the farm, when automation did pick up, in the mid-20th century, suddenly instead of intimidating the black population to stay, White Citizens Councils offered them free Greyhound tickets north. That was the last and largest wave of migration.

If slavery had never ended, they might just have killed them off instead.